Do facts matter when discussing the EU?

For the past couple of days, I’ve been competing in the inaugural EU Twitter Fight Club, where tweeps from different parts of the (notional) European public sphere have been trying to show off their tweeting ability (very broadly defined).  To call it a pleasure would be a stretch, but it’s certainly been informative for me, both in connecting to new individuals and in revisiting some old debates.

One underlying theme that I’ve observed has been the relative importance of logic and emotion in the debating European integration. The launch of UKIP’s poster campaign on Tuesday was a case in point: on the one hand, the party tapped into anxiety about jobs and immigration, while simultaneously throwing figures behind it. Critics immediately pointed out the holes in those numbers and spoofed the posters, in turn producing counter-critiques from others sceptics (see the results here). Likewise, the reassuring face of a young woman in the (brief) manifesto – communicating the party’s openness and unstuffiness – was undermined by the discovery that she works as the party’s events manager.

In all this, there is a tension between rationality and emotion. The impression matters at least as much as the facts: indeed, the ‘facts’ cannot help but be interpreted to serve particular ends. In the case of UKIP, there continues to be a lack of learning that charges of racism and transgressive behaviour probably just strengthen the party: Rob Ford & Matt Goodwin write very well on this.

It’s something that has long been of interest to me, since it touches on wider issues of the nature of ‘euroscepticism‘ and the shape of any future referendum on British membership of the EU. It also touches on a point that I’ve been planning to write on for some time, namely the accounts of the EU.

This might not sound very exciting (and in some ways, it isn’t), but it is important. At the last two speaking events I’ve done, someone has piped up with the old classic “but the accounts haven’t been signed off in 20yrs!” And to my embarrassment, I couldn’t recall enough detail to form a proper response, except acknowledging that financial accountability was important.

According the Court of Auditors, they’ve actually signed off the accounts every year since 2007. As the Commission notes, they identify some errors, but these are mainly at national level, and often of the nature of procedures not being followed, rather than being misused (e.g. procurement rules aren’t followed for infrastructure development that takes place).

However, the CoA also notes, in its fuller press briefing, that the Statement of Assurance it signs is ‘materially affected by error’ in payments. Which sounds bad, especially as the Court has done this every year that it has had to return a Statement. Already the fog closes in.

But we might also note that national auditors see the same problem in their national accounts. Indeed, the then British comptroller told the House of Lords in 2006 that he would also have to make the same statement if he had to sign one for the UK, since he’d found errors in 13 of the 500 accounts he’d audited.

So what’s the problem here?

Rationally, the problem is the gap between European and national auditing: close that gap and you’d close some of the opportunity to misuse funding. Alternatively, you stop asking the CoA to sign its Statement, because it causes more confusion than clarity (which is what auditing should be about).

But emotionally, neither of those options works. The former implies ‘more Europe’ (other people looking into our accounts), while the latter looks like sticking one’s head in the sand. The very fact that – despite the CoA and Commission pushing hard last autumn on the successful signing-off – most people who talk about such things still think there’s no sign-off suggests that there is a communication and a framing problem to be addressed.

The inconvenience of signed-off accounts to sceptical voices is brushed off, not least by pointing to the Statement, and by most people’s indifference to finding out the situation as it actually stands: it’s taken me some months to get to and I’ve got a particular interest in finding out. And again, the facts become mutable.

The bigger lesson from this is that the debate on the future of European integration – and not just in the UK, but more generally – will depend on the emotional and affective dimensions that can be mobilised. Without some intuitive sense of why it’s good to work closely with other in Europe, no volume of stats is going to provide a response to sceptics. The sooner that lesson is learnt, the sooner it might be possible to find new, common frames of belonging that everyone can work with.